God’s Un-American View of the Poor and Why It Matters

America has an odd view of the poor. It is a view that reveals much about the underlying theological assumptions that create and support our culture. I will quickly quell any protests about the mixing of theology and politics by saying, everything, even politics is rooted in theology. More about that later on…

In general terms, when Americans encounter the poor, our first thoughts go to the individual and his/her story. What happened to them? What decisions did they make? Why are they stuck in this situation? Our stories of success do the same thing. We see the rich and focus on their individual accounts of luck, entrepreneurship, and brilliance. It is an analysis and a cultural reflex that is of a piece with Adam Smith’s musings about economics and commerce. Classically, it is called Capitalism.

We have a hard time in American culture managing a critique of Capitalism. The word acquired almost deified valuation during the Cold War. In the American mind, Communism was bad and Capitalism was good, and there was little nuance in the sentiment. Adam Smith did not write in a vacuum. He was a major figure in the Scottish Enlightenment (1700’s), perhaps the most rigorous and thorough application of reason and individualism the world has ever known. One author has described it as the movement that gave birth to modernity.1

Reason and individualism, though rarely identified as such in contemporary parlance, are at the very heart of American consciousness. When we see the poor, our individualism draws our attention to each single instance. Our rationality asks questions regarding that individual’s choices, virtues and failings. Occasionally that same individualism and rationality turn their attention to God and wonder why He allows such problems to exist.

Adam Smith’s contribution to economic theory was rooted in “rational self-interest.” It was put forward that if markets are free, rational self-interest will be the engine of success and prosperity. It is an idea that is so current that it stalks the hallways of government to this day. It operates as a general assumption – something that need not be defended because it appears to be self-evident truth.

It is not God’s truth.

The closest thing to an economic theory in the Scriptures is embodied in the laws of the Sabbath Years. Every seven years, Israel was required to allow the ground to lie fallow, to give it a rest. There was then a cycle of seven Sabbath years (49 years) at the end of which (the 50th), all debts were canceled, slaves were freed, and land was returned to its original owners.

This radical reset of the economy has a particular insight into the role of structures in the life of a people. The laws regarding the poor (the requirement to allow the poor to “glean” the fields) makes no distinction about the circumstances of their poverty. It doesn’t matter how you became poor, there are structures established for your protection. The Jubilee is something of a structural protection against rational self-interest. There is no doubt that people will act in their own self-interest. It is inherent in sin. Left unchecked, that self-interest always yields the same results: a decreasing minority accrues the wealth while others are deprived. Self-interest is inimical to equality and rarely produces justice.

God is not a Communist. However, He reveals to us the role played by the structures of our world. There is no level playing field. There is such a thing as privilege and it is written into the structures of every society. Without intervention, those structures become engines of an inequality that crushes the weakest, the least talented, the unlucky, and the feckless. So, God intervened.

The economic ideas of our culture are deeply theological. In popular American Christianity, salvation is seen as a matter of rational self-interest. It is more accurate to say that rational self-interest was a theological concept before it became a part of Adam Smith’s economics. The role of decision-making and the will, in their almost limitless conception, are endemic to American religion. In the “hour of decision,” God is a choice.  This over-emphasis on a rationalized concept of the will distorts the whole of the American gospel. I think it’s why we are so fascinated with hell.

For example, the arguments surrounding hell and its eternal necessity, are deeply grounded (in modern times) within our need to safeguard rational self-interest at all costs. Without such a looming consequence, who would ever rationally choose good over evil? Or so we think. This is a terrible distortion of the will. We certainly have a will, and it has some measure of “freedom.” But the playing field of the human soul is not level. The ancestral nature of our existence (no one starts from scratch) has tilted the field of the human soul from the beginning. We are not “totally depraved” as some would say, but we are all a bit depraved.

The Orthodox account of human sin is not grounded in the will. It is grounded in mortality. Adam and Eve are not punished by being consigned to a world of rational self-interest. They simply enter mortality. It is death that is our problem.2 The “sins” we commit, even through the poor use of our will, are ultimately a consequence of living in a world where “death reigns” (Rom. 5:17). The Orthodox proclamation is that Christ defeats death: the playing field is tilted in the other direction.

Christ’s descent into Hades and His resurrection from the dead are God’s cosmic Jubilee. Indeed, Christ links His entire ministry with a cosmic Jubilee:

And He was handed the book of the prophet Isaiah. And when He had opened the book, He found the place where it was written:

“The Spirit of the LORD is upon Me,
Because He has anointed Me
To preach the gospel to the poor;
He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted,
To proclaim liberty to the captives
And recovery of sight to the blind,
To set at liberty those who are oppressed;
To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.”

Then He closed the book, and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all who were in the synagogue were fixed on Him. And He began to say to them, “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” (Lk. 4:17-21)

The “Acceptable Year of the Lord” is the cosmic Jubilee.

In His descent into Hades, Christ “loosed the bonds of the captives.” The narrative of Pascha generally makes no mention of rational self-interest. Scandalously for many, it says nothing about the role of the will in those who are delivered. This indiscriminate generosity is deeply troubling for many and almost always finds some response that re-establishes the primacy of the will. We agree that the bonds of the captives are loosed, but they really have to want their bonds to be loosed.

As a culture, our myth of rational self-interest has made us leery of any scheme that attributes suffering to the structures of society. Such narratives carry a tint of Marxism for most and threaten to undermine our cherished individualism. Imagine, if you will, a proclamation that all college debts were to be forgiven. The response, I suspect, would be to complain that some of the debts were acquired foolishly and without concern for consequence. Those who are foolish or stupid must be made to pay. Imagine a fifty-year cycle in which the accrued wealth of all was re-distributed. The cards are re-shuffled and the game of Monopoly can begin again.

I hear the protests already. But I am not writing to make economic suggestions. That would be a useless exercise. However, I do write to suggest that our theology has been co-opted by a false narrative that skews our thinking about the whole of our faith. Rational self-interest (even when married to hell and heaven) is not a proper basis for Christian thought. The narrative that is our inheritance in Christ is found in Pascha. It was found in Passover before that. What decisions would a culture make about its problems if its thoughts were governed by Christ’s Pascha? How would it view the poor? What would it do with the structures that tilt the field and lock the door?

Dear America, What would Jesus do? No, What did He do?

Footnotes for this article

  1. see Arthur Herman’s How the Scots Invented the Modern World.
  2. The Late Byzantine Scholar, Fr. John Meyendorff, has written: “There is indeed a consensus in Greek patristic and Byzantine traditions in identifying the inheritance of the Fall as an inheritance essentially of mortality rather than of sinfulness, sinfulness being merely a consequence of mortality.” Byzantine Theology (1983) p. 145

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.





128 responses to “God’s Un-American View of the Poor and Why It Matters”

  1. Nicholas Stephen Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Stephen Griswold

    Intense posting Father. I am reminded of a post I saw yesterday from a Protestant source proclaiming the need in theology for the Wrath of God. Now I wish I had read the article as I think it would have been an excellent illuminator to the truths you state here about the false theology of the West. I will see if I can find it.

  2. Laura Stanley Avatar
    Laura Stanley

    Instead of asking ourselves, ” Why is that person poor? Why is that person gay? Why this? Why that?” we should just help people when they have a need. As dear Mother Maria of Paris said, “Love to the end and without exception.” That is enough.

  3. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I stuck the near rabbit-trail about hell in, because it continues to fascinate me. Not that there is a hell, or that it is as the Scriptures describe, but rather, the arguments I encounter regarding its necessity, which strikes me as perverse. The elevation of the will (even among some Orthodox) is particularly pernicious and should be traced directly to the Scotish Enlightenment – at least that’s how it came into American thought.

  4. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I keep returning to the imagery of Pascha. That should be the primary model for thinking about salvation. In America, the primary model is a lot closer to shopping (only thinking of Jesus as a really big and important purchase). We are the people who “decided” to follow Jesus. We imagine ourselves (and everyone else) as free and capable of deciding for themselves and responsible for every decision (therefore “deserving” of punishment when we get it wrong). I think this is a distortion of reality and is not actually the case. It’s certainly not Biblical.

  5. Seraphim Avatar

    I always find it strange that, in American society, we think folks are responsible enough to acquire thousands of dollars worth of debt at eighteen years old, but we think that that same individual will not yet be prepared for the awesome responsibility of getting a beer until he or she is twenty one.

  6. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Or that the same person is capable of making a life-or-death decision on a battlefield.

  7. Nicholas Stephen Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Stephen Griswold

    Sadly, the Facebook post has disappeared and I have to pay to read it on Preachers Institute.

  8. Steve H Avatar
    Steve H

    For the first time in years I am going to disagree with you. Unfortunately our differences require a conversation, not a drive-by posting on your blog wall. Peace, and thank you for your writings!

  9. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Steve H,
    May God grant us space for such a conversation. It is a much larger topic than can really be adequately described in a blog post. God bless!

  10. Chris M Avatar
    Chris M

    Love how you’ve elaborated on your sermon from this past Sunday, Father (although it leaves out that particularly colorful analogy about the law of gravity 🙂 ).

    I’ve heard folks call Jesus a socialist or communist and, even though I think it’s a bit anachronistic, in some ways, I appreciate what they’re trying to express. God’s concern for the poor, a divine being’s concern for the socioeconomic plight of human beings, His concern for human bondage and trafficking, that makes me feel he must be a god worthy of worship far more than all the scary divine wrath stuff. And, that is part of what has been pulling me back to the church. Whenever I feel out of place because I didn’t grow up in a religious household, whenever religion starts to feel alien to me again, I’ll sometimes remember god’s concern for the poor, for the sick, for the downtrodden, for the human condition, and I feel the pull to return to church.

    Quick question: what would God have to say about the ways in which we indirectly perpetuate systems of oppression like, since we’re kinda on the topic, economic exploitation? For example, if I purchase a cheap garment made by an underpaid, overworked child laborer in Indonesia, have I committed a sin?

  11. Robert Avatar

    First Public Orthodoxy. Now Acton. You’re not going to have many friends left, Father. 🙂

  12. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Chris M,
    It’s a valid question and choosing not to make such purchases is certainly a means of responding. The nature of sin, in many cases, is quite collective. There’s not a way to extricate ourselves as individuals into a place of innocence. It is why there is also a collective aspect of salvation (and of society, poverty, economics, etc.). We should live “small” as Fr. T. Hopko described it – not being driven to live by shopping or needing the best bargains (because we are acquiring too much). But it permeates everything – not just an individual shopping choice.

    We’re all in this together, so we need to be kind to one another, forgive one another, and realize that the sins of others are not just potentially our own, but most often are indeed our own. It’s not, “There but for the grace of God, go I.” Rather, it is “There, by the grace of God is my other self.”

  13. Nicholas Stephen Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Stephen Griswold

    I tend to agree with you Karen. Especially with the reaction of the Lord to the woman caught in adultery. If His wrath was directed at persons, there would have been a stoning in the narrative.

  14. Nicholas Stephen Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Stephen Griswold

    There is a problem though with not buying a shirt or any clothing made under such circumstance. One has to skip buying clothes all together as US clothing mills have long been shuttered.

  15. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Robert, I confess to not have read Acton (or perhaps you mean the Acton Institute). I have no use for Public Orthodoxy’s work. But if writing like this were to cost me friends, then I need fewer friends. In general, I think people like me until they don’t. 🙂

  16. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Of course, one could become a fool for Christ and not wear any clothes…but I don’t think that would be understood at all. 🙂

  17. Paul Avatar

    Father, a few weeks ago I heard an ad on local Evangelical radio for a book by an Evangelical defending Capitalism as the only economic system compatible with biblical principles. (These seem to come out predictably every decade or so! 🙄) Your post better explains s why this seems to be a regular occurrence in modern American Evangelicalism.

    You’ve really stirred the pot for restless natives with this one! 🙂

  18. Robert Avatar

    Acton Institute, yes. Meaning, though, all those on the conservative side who have adopted the logic of Individualism/Materialism as a counter to Marxism, not recognizing it as just the other side of the same coin.

  19. Dn Michael Heningham Avatar

    “If it is possible for you, remember everything I have said. If you cannot remember everything, instead of everything, I beg you, remember this without fail, that to fail to share our own wealth with the poor is theft from the poor and deprivation of their means of life; we do not possess our own wealth but theirs. If we have this attitude, we will certainly offer our money, and by nourishing Christ in poverty here and laying up great profit hereafter, we will be able to attain the good things which are to come, by the grace and kindness of our Lord Jesus Christ, with Whom be glory, honor and might, to the Father, together with the Holy Spirit, now and every and unto ages of ages. Amen.” ~ St John Chrysostom

  20. Karen Avatar

    “Paul” should have been “Karen”.

    Yikes! How very odd! I was commenting from my iPhone and somehow it substituted someone else’s name and email for mine when I posted my comment! I promise I had typed my own, Father!

    The only difference is I was out and about, so my phone was using my mobile service internet rather than my home wifi. That was just strange!

    Signing in case it happens again,


  21. Nicholas Stephen Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Stephen Griswold

    I would think doing that would garner one a room with no view.

  22. Anna Avatar

    “Scandalously for many, it says nothing about the role of the will in those who are delivered. This indiscriminate generosity is deeply troubling for many and almost always finds some response that re-establishes the primacy of the will. We agree that the bonds of the captives are loosed, but they really have to want their bonds to be loosed.”
    So does this paragraph mean that God is willing to deliver people without their consent ?
    Would you please elaborate in the “primacy of the will”?
    These concepts are new to me.
    Thanks for always challenging the prevalant ideas .

  23. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I did not hear his comment as sitting in judgment.

  24. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    God certainly acts on people’s behalf without their consent. I can think of a number of times in the gospel in which Jesus acts without someone’s consent. The demoniacs aren’t usually asked anything at all. Last Sunday’s gospel told of Christ’s healing of the woman who had been bowed for 18 years. He didn’t seem to ask whether she wanted to be healed or not.

    God did not become man because we asked Him to. The Theotokos certainly says, ‘Yes,” to the Incarnation but it wasn’t her idea. Indeed, if I understand the tradition correctly, we are all saved (in one sense) without our permission. Now, it is true (in another sense) that our cooperation is necessary. But the will is not entirely free and sovereign. The will, according to the teaching of the Church (St. Maximus the Confessor) is itself broken, shattered. It does not function as it should. St. Paul echoes this in Romans 7, “The good I would do, I do not do, but the good I would not, that is what I do! O Wretched man that I am!”

    The love of God is shown to us in that “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”

    The healing of the will (for it needs to be healed), is, to my mind, something of a “dance.” God initiates, we respond. But we respond badly most of the time, but He doesn’t give up. He still continues to initiate, and draw us ever to Himself. It’s not at all in the sense of pure decision. In that sense, the will is not primary, it’s just one broken part in a broken whole.

    If our salvation depended on us being able to choose God on our own (without assistance of any sort), I don’t think any of us would be saved. God knocked St. Paul off a horse and blinded him without his permission.

    Please understand that I am not eliminating the will. It’s just that it’s not nearly as primary as we often mythologize it in our modern-shaped world (where a false philosophy has taught us about its primacy). Contemporary science has shown pretty conclusively that we are not nearly as rational as we imagine. The notion of “rational self-interest” was purely theoretical – a make-believe that was not based on reality or careful reflection on reality, but on a priori assumptions.

    I ran across this little BBC documentary that looks at how we actually make decisions. I think God deals with us as we are – and not as we are imagined by 18th century Scots. https://youtu.be/7Ha34Vu1zZo

  25. Gavin James Campbell Avatar
    Gavin James Campbell

    I am absolutely thrilled than an Orthodox priest FINALLY made reference to the Scottish Enlightenment. That in the English Speaking world, the Enlightenment of the European Continent was of little influence. That it is the Scottish Enlightenment that provides the paradigm of the English Speaking World, whether in the Commonwealth or the United States. That there is too much attention paid to the French Revolution and the post-modernism of post-WWII Europe by Orthodox writers. That even theories of socialism in Commonwealth countries owe much to Scottish thinkers. While the theories of Marx have not had much practical influence on left wing parties in the Commonwealth. Tommy Douglas, was after all, born in Scotland.

    And I’ve just finished reading Arthur Herman’s book. He got some of his facts about Canada wrong but it’s still an excellent and informative read.

  26. John Avatar

    Just asking, that’s all. Would you comment on 2 Thessalonians 3:10? Thanks.

  27. Dean Avatar

    Fr. Freeman,
    A small example of this tilted playing field. Those who read the comments know that my 79 year old brother in law just died. He was one of 10 boys. When his parents separated his mother could not care for them and they were sent to live with different families. This was during WWII. The woman he was sent to live with was a not very kind, single, church going person. In his last months he told me how he had often been emotionally wounded by her growing up. He always kept his mom’s address in his wallet in case she called for him to go home. The call never came. At 17 he joined the Marines. The 57 years he was married
    to my sister were years of martyrdom for her. He could be cruel. Yet, he was exceptionally generous with money. He gave multiple thousands to friends and relatives. I’m thinking of Solzhenitsyn’s words, “Through the heart of each man runs a line dividing good from evil,” or words to that effect. I cannot judge him. He had obstacles placed in his path I never did. I had a loving father and mother, a very stable family life. It pleases me that God will judge him, not I. I learned to love him in the last months of his life. If I had my heartstrings of compassion moved toward him, how much more the One who came to set the captives free. I long to see him again in that Eternal Jubilee.

  28. Gavin James Campbell Avatar
    Gavin James Campbell

    Scot Enlightenment is the way of thinking I’ve had to shake off, but still can’t fully shake off. And most likely never will. I’ll always have something of that way of thinking in me no matter what.

    I came by it honestly, as the surname indicates. My dad had no use for religion but was an ardent capitalist. While his dad was an strident atheist who was jubilant when Pierre Trudeau put Canada under martial law in order to deal with the Marxist Front de Liberation du Quebec (FLQ).

    Still, it’s my askesis and I am glad that there is an Orthodox priest – a Christian clergyman of any sort, really – who finally understands.

  29. Randy Ve Avatar
    Randy Ve

    Hi Father
    Like Steve H.,, I have to disagree with you on some points. The OT system had high taxes and big redistributions of the most important form of capital of the time (land) but was a free market system – one in which, by and large, the poor had to work in order to eat. The principle with the redistribution is, I think, ensure that the poor have sufficient capital to be able to produce. Bad luck or tragedy or bad decisions may have induced someone to sell their land, but they or their kids would eventually get it back,ensuring their ability to produce. The ‘inevitablilities’ you assert are someone’s economic theory, not a fact that can be stated like dogma. I suspect that we are better served by asking “why are the poor not getting sufficient (human) capital to produce?” and what can we do about that, than by putting forth semi Marxist theory mixed into Orthodoxy. We must have concern for the poor, even the “undeserving ‘ poor, but that doesn’t translate necessarily into support for particular programs being pushed by one set of politicians or the other, or to supporting social theories that don’t withstand rigorous scrutiny . I may be totally wrong, but that is how I see it.

  30. Matthew Avatar


    Just… Amen.

    I’ve never had a problem with Capitalism. Every voluntary act, if seen properly, is Capitalist. The right to do with ones property as one sees fit should be sacrosanct, even if it means giving it all to the poor. I think what passes for Capitalism in the Modern era is an abomination to the ideal, and I detest it.

    I’ve always thought that Capitalism only really works well when a true Christian practices it. Define a true Christian though, ah, that’s the rub. Anything else is a distortion.

    My two cents.

    + Glory to the Father the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

  31. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I suspect St. Paul is alluding to some sort of practical, pastoral situation whose context is unknown to us. That has made the verse subject to much mischief. Imagine applying it to your children, or to poor Lazarus at your door. Ebenezer Scrooge would have greatly approved of the rationalists of his day and their ideas for the relief of the poor. “What? Have they no workhouses?” He asks.

  32. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    The “inevitabilities” I suggest are simply based on observation. I cannot think of any particular society where the pattern has failed to show itself. There might be some small examples – Switzerland, for example. I would urge the reading of Solzhenitsyn’s thought on economies of scale (smaller is better). There are essays to be found out there.

    God is not a Communist, nor am I a Marxist. Nonetheless, I think the playing field is tilted. I grew up among the blue collar population of the South, any number of whom might have been called “White Trash.” I live in Appalachia, and volunteer among the drug-addicted poor. The playing field is seriously tilted – in a way that the Middle Class fails to see. As I have spent time in the past decade or so among college students, I am utterly dismayed at a ridiculous and cruel change in the education establishment and the absurdities of its financing – I could go on and on.

    But the rationalist notions of the Scotish Enlightenment – which have shaped American capitalism in profound ways – is also a very cruel system for those who cannot compete. Gavin was right. Marxism has had no particular place within Anglo-Scottish-American thought. The American Left is really rooted in certain elements of 19th century American Evangelical/Whigs. They simply want to fix everyone.

    I think that you’re parsing the OT system too closely. The reset is quite radical and far ranging. Land reform was that driving force of ancient revolutions, and its failure the source of slavery. The clear opposition to debt (and usury) within the OT are important as well.

    But, the accusation of “semi-Marxist” theory is, I think, rather typical of any critique of American economics that suggests that its structures are diseased. Have you ever lived among people who aren’t very bright? Who lack education and capital? Who seem strangely prone to dumb things? There are a lot of them out there. Jesus died for them as well as the rest of us. A system designed to maximize the success of the best without care for the worst is not only cruel – it is asking for its own demise. It will certainly find its prayers unheard by God.

  33. Esmee La Fleur Avatar

    It’s been a long time since I read Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, but I think his observations on the role Protestantism played in promoting Capitalism is relevant to this discussion. The Eastern Orthodox Church was not only not influenced by the Scottish Enlightenment, but it also remained untainted by Protestantism. Consequently, the teachings of Christ were not put through the prism of either of these uniquely Western movements within the Orthodox Church. As someone who has experienced extreme poverty due to chronic physical illness, it has been very difficult even for me to not blame myself for the hardships I have endured precisely because of the way our American culture loves to bring everything back to the individual. There are many Eritreans who go to my church and they stick together like glue. One young man told me that even if a relative commited murder, his family would not abandon him. Unfortunately, that kind of loyalty and collective responsibility does not exist among the American members (mostly converts) of my parish. It’s an interesting contrast and definitely gives one pause for thought and self-examination. Similarly, we see so many families come from other cultures (Korea, India, etc) who live together, work together, and pool all of their resources for the greater good the family and create very successful businesses; while those of us who grow up here are often unwilling to help even our closest relatives. We don’t want our own private self-centered little kingdoms upset by the presence or needs of another. It’s a sad comment.

  34. Z Avatar

    Not long ago, I delivered couple of meals through the meals on wheels program. When I got to Willie’s house, the door was unlocked and, as usual, his dog welcome me at the door. No one answered the door, and a bit worried I checked with Willie’s next door neighbor. His neighbor was kind, and very nice. He came over, checked the house, and than he remembered: Willie was in downtown to help prepare meals for homeless people! That moment I realized how sick I have been myself with seeking validation from the world. Willie was poor, in need for meals, but he gave from what he didn’t have anyways! And I thought I was (at least partially) resetting his button, but instead he reset mine.

  35. Ook Avatar

    Regarding the Jubilee, for a long time I have wondered about the Latin “Our Father”: et dimitte nobis debita nostra, sicut et nos dimittimus debitoribus nostris. The Latin seems to be clearly and centrally about debt, but the English “trespasses” seems to de-emphasize this aspect.
    Also, would it be wrong to think of the sacrament of Confession as a kind of jubilee of one’s sins (although hopefully more than once every 50 years, of course…)?

  36. Nicole from VA Avatar
    Nicole from VA

    About ten years ago I went to a lecture by the Pschology professor Philip Zimbardo. He had just written a book on evil. He explained that when we look at the military personnel involved in the Abu Ghraib scandal our tendency is to call them evil, to call them bad apples. He said this is inappropriate and that instead of looking for bad apples to classify as evil we should look for ‘bad barrel makers,’ the people who make the barrels within which others go bad. I really liked his point and have often wondered if it is consistent with our Faith.

    He explained that when conducting the Stanford Prison Experiment years earlier it was his girlfriend, his future wife, who had emphatically said to him that he needed to end the experiment early because of the violent behavior some students were exhibiting. Zimbardo seemed haunted that he hadn’t perceived the need to stop the experiment earlier. I think that shaped his realizations that the bad barrel makers deserve the blame.

    A few years ago my husband heard a speaker say that the worst kind of inference we make is assuming we would have behaved differently if we were in the situation a poor person faced.

    Variables are assumed to be unrelated when the conditional and unconditional probabilities are the same. In our society we have the bootstrap myth: poor people should just improve even if they are born in a single parent household and have a bad school system. Really we have to look at it like conditional probabilities: under the condition your parents earned half of what they made during the time you were growing up how likely is it you would have the same level of economic security you have right now?

    “Communism encourages a man to take what is not his, Christianity enourages a man to give”

    Thank you for this post, Fr. Stephen.

  37. Maria W Avatar
    Maria W

    Esmee La Fleur says:
    November 30, 2017 at 9:26 pm
    You gave the best response to : Dear America, what would Jesus do?
    He did speak to his own tribe who he foresaw in the future being destroyed and disbursed. Peoples survival depended on Family and tribal unity. With the industrialization of the west and the emergence of City-Dwellers, all the villages, farms, jobs and what held people together was little by little destroyed. The way I see it. Every man and woman for himself. The movie Angela’s Ashes showed this emergence and destitution of that time and age well in England or Scotland and just an inkling of History here in the US you can find it also. When things break up, regardless, even marriages, one or the other, mostly woman enter into poverty with children to feed, the men run away without support, or also fall also into poverty and depression. Unity builds, but the loss of character of those who profit or see an opportunity for gain from the misfortune of others who’ve lost this unity , becomes the seed of corruption called entrepreneurs, an old profession in the economic money-markets, instead of helping those who’ve lost this support of unity. It is not the honest hard worker or Entrepreneur who becomes wealthy who is the problem, it is the one who draws his fortune on and off the weak who have been betrayed, lied to or by some other circumstance like sickness, Natural disaster etc. lost everything and became poor. Vet’s on the streets lost their Job, their arms or leg, come back feeling half of a human being, robbed of their normal life, with nightmares of what they have witnessed and the senselessness of war and killings and America goes on living as usual without a clue of what they’ve seen and been thru…..and we all thank them, and they want to commit suicide or end up homeless on the street unable to deal with life of none-importance, ….no body gives a damn here so they may perceive themselves. I wonder what would Jesus say to America ? Who and what is America? It is not a Tribe of Jesus’s times, or the saintly Pharisees and Sadducees Jesus addressed 2000 years ago, or a blood line. Is being or becoming poor a moral question on the individual or a collective one?. Good example the firing of all the well to do in the sexual misconduct cases. It was a cultural permissiveness thru movie, Hollywood and the emergence of all kinds of freedoms with the silence of the lambs = the Church. And it got and will get worse. What would Jesus do….he gave his life for the cause of his Tribe. He spoke the uncomfortable TRUTH. The question is right Fr. Freeman, what will America do or the Church, wait passively and let it go to hell?

  38. Tom (aka Volkmar) Avatar

    We have a hard time in American culture managing a critique of Capitalism.


    Whenever I try to speak to this issue the usual response is something like, “So, you’re thinking that communism is a better system?”

    The reality is that those countries who do well by their citizens have incorporated a “mixed” economic system that is neither pure capitalism or pure socialism.

    If the US doesn’t experience something of an economic Jubilee in the near future, then it’s experience will be something closer to the French Revolution…

  39. Tom (aka Volkmar) Avatar

    Thank you for your thoughts on this subject, Father. I also live in Tennessee where there are many who are not too “bright” and capitalistically savvy.

  40. Juliania Avatar

    Maria, the words of Jesus were not addressed only to his tribe, but were most tellingly addressed to all. One might say of any man, a philosopher, a mathematician, a scientist, even a capitalist, that they address humanity. Not only their tri be. But not only that, in the case of Jesus there was the transmission of a message to his closest friends as he himself departed from them. Add to this his divine nature, and the field of inquiry expands exponentially.

    Here is perhaps a truth that may help
    you. I love this saying:

    “Eschatalogically speaking, an event of the past can be caused by what happens in the present, or even by what has not yet taken place.” [Manoussakis]

    When eternity touches upon our time it affects not only that time but all time.

  41. Salaam Avatar

    Greetings in the Lord, Father,

    If I may venture that those of us from Orthodox lands perhaps not too removed from our traditions have an easier time understanding your point. A newcomer from such lands can just feel the individualism in North America. Some of us revel in it because it brings us financial prosperity, ‘freedom’ from others, and simplistic moralism. It is such a potent elixir. But it is not Orthodox. We are saved together, we are in “communionnnn”, as you say, we have ancestral sin, … Yes, we do have a will, of course, but this cannot contradict our collective nature.

    You are not make economic suggestions, I agree. I don’t know how anyone can – there are pitfalls in every direction! It is good for me to give away my money, but it may not be good for him who receives it, no?! You are simply pointing out, as you have again and again, assumptions that we have ingrained from modernity that are simply untrue — un-Christian.

  42. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    In my diocese of the OCA, and certainly in ROCOR, the Lord’s prayer is translated as “debts.” Thomas Cranmer’s (the English Reformer) translation (that’s where the trespasses originated) is problematic. “Debts” is the accurate translation. You might find this article of interest: https://glory2godforallthings.com/2016/04/27/good-news-debt-cancelled/

    You are absolutely correct to think of the sacrament of confession as a kind of jubilee. The Jubilee is itself a type of the coming of the Kingdom of God.

  43. Karen Avatar

    “Blessed is the Kingdom/Jubilee/Pascha of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…!”

  44. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I noted that I was not trying to describe or prescribe an economic plan. Doubtless, you are right, however. We have elements of a “mixed” economy. Next year (when I turn 65), I will begin to enjoy some of the benefits of the mix (Medicare). Our thinking about these things, in my observation, has been deeply charged with irrational superstitions – which is ironic in that those superstitions are rooted in the myth of rational self-interest.

    On our local UT campus, I see a strange thing. Several years ago, a new section was built with extravagant buildings (mega-mega mansions) for the Fraternities and Sororities. It is also gated. The visible distinction between students is magnified. And this hides even greater inequalities – the many students who cannot afford to attend the University with its ever-rising costs, or those who are being saddled with ridiculous debt. And, of course, everyone is taxed to support the inequality. In our American thought, however, the inequality is consistently thought of in terms of “who is smart enough to go there” and “who is willing to work hard enough to go there” etc. The nature of our culture’s thought is to tilt the playing field to favor some, but to explain the problems by blaming inidividuals. As to French Revolutions…they did not have mass media permeating everything then. We will drown in our dysfunctionality, and think that we ourselves, as individuals are to blame.

  45. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    A thousand yes’es!

  46. Dean Avatar

    Fr. Stephen….Back to the tilted playing field. I come from a poor family from the Ozarks of Missouri. Let’s say to “make it”, whatever that means, that I had to overcome 6 big hurdles in life. However, take another man, this a poor black man from inner city Baltimore. He struggles and battles and overcomes 9 large hurdles. But on the 10th, he cannot go on. He succumbs to drugs and a life of crime. Yet, who was the stronger? I, who would have thrown in the towel on the 7th hurdle, or he who overcame 9? Thank you Fr. Stephen for another thought provoking article, that throws me back to my college days in some ways, forcing me to look again at how we treat our poor and marginalized among us.

  47. Helen Avatar

    It’s been a few years since I read Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, but my key take-away from the book is that “successful ” people have many circumstances beyond their control that puts them in a position to succeed. Will is important, but not the major contributor. It helped me to see that all is a gift, the circumstances and the will, and that if I don’t have the same level of acceptable success, it is not necessarily because I didn’t work hard enough.

  48. patrick kelly Avatar
    patrick kelly

    While encountering Christian Orthodoxy I became painfully aware of its opposition to much of what I had embraced as part of very American, Protestant Christianity. Especially in regards to rhetoric about the rich and poor.

    Marxism/Communism and Capitalism as commonly understand is much more recent and modern than anything Adam Smith wrote. I’m very unsure how useful these terms are when trying to frame an Orthodox Christian mindset regarding these subjects.

  49. Mark M. Avatar
    Mark M.

    There was something that struck me in Plato’s Republic, in Book VIII, discussing the slide of governance from the “ideal state” down through the various inferior stages:
    “Let there be a general rule that every one shall enter into voluntary contracts at his own risk, and there will be less of this scandalous money-making, and the evils of which we were speaking will be greatly lessened in the State.”
    The student loan question is this type of “scandalous” contract – the government/lender assumes essentially no risk. In general, our financial system works very hard to put all the risk on the borrower (I currently work at a university, and – back when I was Reformed Protestant – worked for a spell as a debt collector, so I have seen this from several angles). Whereas, the Jubilee system explicitly forbids the lender from assessing the risk of the loan/sale of property and chattel EXCEPT in direct proportion to the years of service until Jubilee (Lev. 25:13-17). No interest. No finding competitive advantage. “‘Not by might, nor by power, but by My Spirit’, says the Lord…”

    Thank you, Fr., for your thoughts. God grant you many years of fruitful labor.

  50. Rebecca Avatar

    “…an increasing minority accrues the wealth while others are deprived.”

    Father, did you mean to say “decreasing minority”?

  51. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Rebecca, yes. correcting…

  52. Reba Avatar

    Father, it sounds like you are conflating “self-interest” with “selfishness.” One serves to advance an individual toward healthy, happy choices, buttressing family and community in the process. The other thinks only of the self, and is radically emotional and uncaring of its effects on others.
    You claim that “self-interest rarely produces justice,” but again, I think you’re talking about selfishness. Or maybe your idea of justice is vastly different than is mine. If you mean “social justice,” indeed, capitalism doesn’t produce that because it’s a Marxist invention. But true justice, I believe that the free market (not cronyism) brings about the greatest opportunity and prosperity for the most people. But helping people help themselves takes a huge investment of time and energy and is much more difficult than simply throwing money at the poor.
    You also say that “self-interest is inimical to equality,” which assumes that equality is a virtue we should be seeking. This egalitarian and Enlightenment-born notion is at the very heart of selfishness: to have equal talent as others, equal beauty, equal income, equal intellect. That is not how God made us. It’s also promotes covetousness by wanting what others have and then claiming that “leveling the playing field” is a justice thing, instead of a humanist thing aimed at crushing the diversity God bestowed upon each individual separately. You can’t get much more French Revolution than that.
    You’re for “intervention” to social “privilege,” but then say God intervened. What does that mean for us as Christians? To intervene on God’s behalf through individual acts? Or through government? Seems unclear to me what you’re calling for. All we have is socialist intervention, which has done absolutely nothing for the American “poor” (who are rich by worldly standards), and only served to destroy the true counter to selfishness: the traditional nuclear family.
    You say that capitalism crushes “the weakest, the least talented, the unlucky” and creates a greater chasm between the rich and poor, but facts belie this claim. Without capitalism, there is no middle class. Without capitalism, the weak and untalented have no jobs, no chance for advancement, no opportunity to pull themselves up into the middle class. You can’t run a business without capital, and you can’t hire employees without a business. Countries that embrace the free market (as best as can despite constant government intervention and meddling) are the ones that thrive economically and lift all of its people a little higher. Countries that don’t become Venezuela.
    Lastly, you talk of a “culture.” What culture? Our nation-state shares no culture among its citizens – nor should it. We have become an ever-growing empire that’s become “too big to fail,” so we’re not the small tribal group you mentioned from the Old Testament. Their are no longer any shared structures that bond us together, no shared language, no shared history, just porous borders, a bloated welfare system, and a fictional indivisibility that, when clung to, only drives us further apart. So the Jubilee story isn’t apt when applied to our geographic blob of more than 320 million people who have little in common, most notably faith and moral principles.

  53. Nicholas Stephen Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Stephen Griswold

    Apparently the reader did not understand what you wrote

  54. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I meant “rational self-interest” – the term used by Adam Smith in his writings and deeply part of the Scotish Enlightenment. I’m not trashing Capitalism, though, I would say that unregulated Capitalism has proven itself to have problems. It’s why there are proper brakes such as banking laws and anti-trust laws. A totally free market, like a totally free anything, would make the meanest, biggest, most ruthless the inevitable winner. Which is why we properly set limits.

    I clearly said that God is not a communist (and neither am I – nor a Marxist). However, the thrust of my article was towards an over-individualization of responsibility in economic terms – that would be an example of too little law. Our culture tends to blame those who fail to make use of the supposed opportunity the system gives everyone. But the field is seriously tilted. Go live a few months among the poor – or even try to be of help to one single poor person who has been stuck. It is not unusual to quickly discover that their world is filled with “Catch-22’s.” The field is tilted.

    The Jubilee is not something I was suggesting as a pattern for the US. It is, however, a Biblical type of what is meant by the coming of the Kingdom of God. As such, it points towards how we should think. It should be a pattern in our mind when we look at these things. The Jubilee rather than Adam Smith.

    I have no solutions for the US. I think we are nearing a collapse and the culture is in a bit of a free-fall. None of that will or should change how a Christian should live (or think). This is an article about ideas – particularly theological ideas – on the basis of which we can rightly understand and live as Orthodox Christians in the world. It is not about economics or politics.

    Our nation-state certainly has an identifiable culture. Its diversity (and its talk about diversity) are part of the culture. I agree that we are an empire – and frequently an evil empire at that. The culture that I am identifying, I have described as “modernity” or the “modern project.” That’s not my invention – it’s a common term, particularly in academic studies of philosophy and sociology.

  55. Hektor Avatar

    St. Paul explains himself.

    11 For we hear that there are some which walk among you disorderly, working not at all, but are busybodies.

    12 Now them that are such we command and exhort by our Lord Jesus Christ, that with quietness they work, and eat their own bread.

    The lazy man who is stealing alms and food from those in true need. They have no love for the poor. But who will judge who is worthy to receive alms and when alms should be withheld in love? Our clergy, to whom the Apostle speaks, are wise enough to deal with these matters.

    Let us pray for our Bishops and Priests and Deacons for wisdom and generosity…for Christ-likeness.

  56. Esmee La Fleur Avatar

    Christ did not ask us to fix the economic system. I’m not sure it is even fixable. He said we will always have the poor among us. What He asked us to do, as His disciples, was to love Him by loving our neighbor… being the Good Samaritan and serving Him by serving the poor, the widowed, the orphaned, the sick, the incarcerated, etc.

  57. Robert Avatar

    patrick kelley,

    “Marxism/Communism and Capitalism as commonly understand is much more recent and modern than anything Adam Smith wrote. I’m very unsure how useful these terms are when trying to frame an Orthodox Christian mindset regarding these subjects.”

    That’s mostly right. Just like speaking from outside the “faith vs. works” paradigm of the West tends to get Orthodox labeled semi-pelagian, speaking from outside the individualism “vs.” statism paradigm of Modernity gets one labeled semi-Marxist (as happened above). So, like I said, you’re mostly right. But in this analogy Smith plays the role of Anselm (against Marx as Calvin), so he is not so distinct from the contemporary conflict as you suggest.

    But you’re 100% right that the terms are not useful in framing an Orthodox Christian mindset. It’s like trying to explain Orthodox soteriology and only being able to discuss sola fide, TULIP, satisfaction, and merits. You have to get outside the invisible paradigm not only to explain, but to even understand. It’s why I appreciate Fr. Stephen’s work so much. There aren’t a lot of English-speaking Orthodox clergy or leaders who really succeed in helping us see behind the Modern veil (or to even see it at all). And it’s important. Modernism is a heresy, and it acts on us deeply and mostly without our conscious knowledge.

  58. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Well said, Robert.

    I had a young person on Facebook suggest that I was using Orthodoxy to put forward a Socialist critique of Capitalism. Of course, I’ve done nothing of the sort, nor would I. I have put forth a gospel critique of Modernity, particularly as manifest in America (the Soviet Union was another version of Modernity, but Solzhenitsyn did such a good job, what more would need to be said?).

    Surely no one (certainly the Orthodox) should be so foolish to think that America, including its economic structures, is an example of godliness? But if it is not, then in what way is it not? I think the Jubilee, particularly in that it is the Old Testament icon of the coming of the Kingdom of God, is the right place to start when thinking about this.

    But, in the article I predicted that some would want to push back and assume Marxism because I dare critique the American system. It’s predictable. Much of the modern world of globalism (which is only the latest iteration of Capitalism – if that’s at all a useful term) uses the notions of the past to protect itself and further its interests. Americans continue to support the growth of globalization even as it destroys their own land – and has done so much to destroy others.

    At least let us look on those who are destroying us with unclouded eyes and the clarity that only comes from the gospel.

  59. RIta Avatar

    Thank you for this. Thought provoking as ever. To me there is a striking similarity between Marxism and Capitalism in that they share a common irony. Both systems make a king out of a mechanism: in Marxism the mechanism is dialectical materialism, in Capitalism it is the Free Market with its “invisible hand”. The irony being that whilst the mechanism is king, it is expected to be understood and mastered on an individualistic, rational, scientific basis. But in effect this is slavery to a mechanism and not at all free!

    The reason why both are such failures is that they simply aren’t “cosmological” in the original meaning of the word: they are not about beauty and elegance. If they were cosmological then they would see man as microcosm. When man is viewed in this light it is impossible to see him as a winner or a loser, he is no longer a player in a game, but something to be cherished…… and Our King starts to look very different.

  60. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Thank you. That’s a helpful observation!

  61. Srdjan Ostric Avatar
    Srdjan Ostric

    I have a real problem with this article because it really speaks to a very superficial understanding of Adam Smith, and without a strong rebuke of the evil that communism actually was, which is ultimately Satan’s system, I think this article Lacks any chance at moral Authority. There are so many things here that bother me very intensely, such as the failure to mention that Adam Smith had a very cynical View of business people in general, that he was a religious man who gave much of his salary too many Charities while he was alive even though he earned a very modest income as a professor. The fact that you don’t even acknowledge that Adam Smith was a professor of moral philosophy and that the book he wrote before The Wealth of Nations is called the theory of moral sentiments bothers me. Adam Smith was very concerned about the poor. Wheress the Karl Marx and the communist that followed hated poor people if they could not use them to achieve their Messianic vision of a Utopia where they were kings. Which of course is one of the things that the devil tempted Jesus with in the desert. I also take great issue with the term capitalism because it is a term that marx invented and it is it is never mentioned in Adam Smith’s book. Capitalism existed in the Soviet Union as well except it was controlled by an small totalitarian elite. What we’re talking about is a free enterprise system, which has other things that make it go such as the rule of law, and sacred institutions such as the family and marriage, and most of all a moral people. I’m sure you know about John Adam saying that he thought that the only way our Republic could survive was with a decent moral people who practiced judeo-christian values. This is not necessarily the freedom that Jesus promised us, and I think ultimately that is your point, that we can’t idealize or make an idol of any system, including a free enterprise system that has brought so much wealth to so many people. Even a system like this if it does not nurture the spiritual nature of the human, even though it can provide the material needs of a human, that’s system and that person will die. That’s why Jesus is who Jesus is. But a free enterprise system like we have here is still the best system the world has ever known, and the fact is communism is evil. Stalin destroyed a lot of churches. He killed many people in the dark of night. Communism is a horrible system that is straight out of Satan’s Playbook. It’s just like the grand Inquisitor, from th The Brothers karamazov except it’s not a cardinal of the church it’s a totalitarian like Stalin and Lenin. They tempt us with bread, the cult of personality, and a sense of order and safety. There’s no doubt the capitalists do this to an extent but to say that this is the difference in degree rather than kind compared to capitalism speaks to kind of a morality rather than a true morality

  62. Paula Avatar

    Father Stephen and all,
    I could not possibly add anything to your article and the many insightful comments except to say thank you. After too many years of wandering about in deception, it is a great relief to receive answers to what was “missing” that I could in no way identify.
    Thank you Robert for the link to that article and website. Very helpful to read about these topics from various learned individuals.
    It is hard to accept reality as it really is on the one hand, yet as Christians we are reminded that Christ, Who overcame the world, Who was victorious, is our true ultimate reality. Thank God that we can gather and speak about these things.

  63. Dean Avatar

    I cannot follow all the philosophical intricacies that are made on the blog. But I thank God for all gathered here, as Paula said. St. Paul wrote:
    “For consider your call, brethren; not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth; but God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise…so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus….” ICor.1:26ff.
    If we’ve no gold, frankincense, or myrrh to bring to the Christ Child this Nativity season, may we all have His presence and peace (in the midst of all the crassness we see ’round us) as we offer to Him our humble gifts.

  64. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    If the article had been principally about Adam Smith, I would understand your objections. And I certainly despise communism.

    I am addressing present American culture – noting some of its roots in the Scotish Enlightenment, of whom Smith is but one of many intellects. Thank you for your points, however.

  65. Alyoshak Avatar


    I think perhaps you expect a more full-orbed treatment of Adam Smith, capitalism and communism than can possibly be explored in blog post, especially one as brief as this one.

    A little nugget I picked up from N.T. Wright some years ago: “[It’s] difficult when you’re talking about a subject which is many-sided and complex because you have to say everything all the time, otherwise people think that you have deliberately left something out.”

  66. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    For what it’s worth:

    I get feedback from a number of sources. So, just to set the record straight: I am not a communist, a Marxist, a Liberal, or a Social Justice Warrior. Indeed, this article is not about politics. The fact that people immediately leap to political thoughts is simply symptomatic to being captive to modernity itself which believes that solutions are found in the political arena. They are not.

    This is an article about the poor, how they are view in the Scriptures, and how we should view them as believing Christians. The playing field is tilted. Yes, some of us are privileged. If you were born to wealth, the playing field is tilted for you. If you are born in poverty, the playing field is tilted. The Scriptures understand and note these realities. Lazarus is at our gates – always.

    But if thinking or reading about these things mashes your political buttons (which also means “anger” buttons” in our present age), then the problem is your bondage to the modern project. Let it go. Until we get free of this world, and have our minds conformed to the Kingdom of God, we will live a life of blindness.

    That’s all.

  67. Geri Priscilla Avatar
    Geri Priscilla

    I think one of our “privileged” challenges is to see Lazarus at our gate. With our housing and work patterns, we rarely see those in need. To see who is at our gate, we probably have to be pretty intentional about looking.

  68. victoria Avatar

    Nicole from VA

    I love what you wrote…

    “the worst kind of inference we make is assuming we would have behaved differently if we were in the situation a poor person faced.”

    Truly I think this applies in every situation…. probably in the sense of how much worse we would be in another persons situation. Often we look at the situation of another and assume (because we are ourselves with our own back story, life, genetics, etc…) that we would be so much better… and truly more likely than not we would be far worse.

  69. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    The problem with Capitalism is that it has become just another political ideology used to manipulate people to gain and retain power. It is possible to argue that it is a “better” ideology than Marxism but all ideologies have the same end: the shunning and elimination of all those who do not believe correctly. All ideologies are violent, cruel and false. It is easy to see the effects of such in our current politics.

    Christianity can become an ideology too, may God forgive us, but traditional Christianity is founded on the personal encounter with the living, incarnate Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ. Such an encounter demands the formation of communities to share the fruits of such encounters and to be accountable to others in love as well.

    Such an encounter is not nor can ever be solely moral. Neither is it primarily political.
    Humanity is the hallmark of such communities both in our virtues and in our sins. But it is only in such communities that we can work out our salvation.

    People who think and act primarily from an ideological perspective will never get the Church, nor the Gospel. Ideologs of whatever stripe will simply refuse the Cross and Christ’s words from the Cross asking our Father to forgive us for we do not know what we do. They are however quite willing to send as many other people to the Cross as necessary to make the world a better place.

  70. David Kontur Avatar
    David Kontur

    Hi Raba –
    With all due respect I wanted to say that the nuclear family is not the traditional family that we all imagine. It is one of the consequences of the industrial revolution and has probably resulted in more isolation and fragmentation in families. The “traditional” family, at least over the centuries has been the extended family. That is actually more likely the type of family that Joseph and Mary would have lived in. It seems to me that the emergence of the nuclear family has had a number of serious consequences on the cohesion and connectedness of families.

  71. Esmee La Fleur Avatar

    David – This is exactly the difference i see between the Eritrean members (with very large extended families) of my parish and those of us who were born and raised in the US and come predominately from Western European descent (and live in atomized nuclear families).

    Michael – insightful and incisive comment, thank you.

    Geri – interestingly enough, in Santa Rosa, California, where I live, we have one of the largest homeless populations in the country and the homeless are just about everywhere you look. Something like half of all 911 calls are made by the homeless in this city. We have no available housing. I have been on the Section 8 waiting list for 2 years and the average wait is 5 years for those who are both homeless and disabled (me). If I wasn’t offered a room by the Abbess of a local Orthodox Monastery, I would still be homeless myself. (Maybe this is God’s way of telling me He wants me to be a nun, 😂 !) I think one of the reasons we have so many homeless in this city is because we have so many well-organized Christan-based charities offering services, Catholic Charities and Redwood Gospel Mission among others. Our parish participates in a nomadic shelter program and hosts a group of homeless families one night a month, along with 29 other churches, throughout the cold months of the year. So, on the one hand we have a higher than average level of help being provided to homeless people (primarily through non-governmental christian missions), but on the other hand, this attracts many chronically homeless (most of whom are mentally ill as Fr. Freeman pointed out) people to the area and overwhelms the community and resources. This has created a lot of disgruntled business owners in the main downtown areas who feel that the presence of the homeless has a negative effect on their businesses. It’s a tough situation for both sides and I don’t really know what the solution is. But as a Christian, I am learning (over and over again), that it is not my job to fix either individuals or society at large, but simply to love – as best I can – the person standing in front of me. May the Lord give all of us the strength we need to do this. 🙏

  72. Nicholas Stephen Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Stephen Griswold

    I believe you to be correct about Capitalism becoming an ideology. What it really means is quite different than what the ideological application of it has become. It seems to have started going down that pat after WW II and accelerated when corporations became International non state actors. As an example, our medication costs so much in part to the collusion between the major pharmaceuticals (who are international actors) that the people of the US should pay for all the research and development costs for medications. This is why drugs are so much cheaper in Canada.
    I also think you are correct that Christianity can become an ideology. It seems to be the case in National Churches and certainly in American Evangelicalism. I used to receive many e mails from the American Family Association and even served a few times as a backup radio host on an America Family Radio talk show. I cannot say that all they do is wrong or not a good influence, but I know the talk show I was on was entirely devoted to political agenda.

  73. Chuck Avatar

    I was going to write a long polemic about the ravages capitalism visited upon the areas where I grew up and how it ruined and destroyed families and the men who led them. I married a Cuban woman and I have heard first hand (and seen the wreakage) the horror visited upon people by Marxism-Leninism. I detest the comments made by any trying to defend either system. As Christ said, the poor will always be with us. As Father said Lazurus will always be at the gate. All the comments defending political-economic systems are drivel. What matters is that we defend and reach out to the poor–they are always and forever our brothers and sisters. Christ will not ask what what we did to defend man made political structures, he will ask us if we aided our brothers and sisters. By the by I served in the USMC during the Vietnam war, most of the flagwavers seemed to have been absent from that. Glory to our Lord God and savior!

  74. Nicholas Stephen Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Stephen Griswold

    Your observation is very accurate. In my own family on my father’s mother’s side, they lived as an extended family in Goshen, CT from 1635 until the end of WW II. Until the mid 1800’s they, as an extended family farmed a huge tract of land and every one lived within an hours horseback ride from each other. The break up began when the Torrington Water District seized their land to make a reservoir which dispossessed many of their farms. It started a trend of people going off to school, getting jobs in NYC or other big centers but maintaining summer residences in Goshen and retiring there. My father grew up attending school with all his first and second cousins and spending summers with them. Contrast to my generation where I have not seen many of my cousins in decades and some I have never met. The final blow was WW II and the aftermath of our family moving literally all over the world.
    As the extended American family disintegrated following the Great Depression, Dust Bowl and WW II, the nuclear families also followed suit in divorce. In the 1950’s the divorce rate began to rise rapidly quickly going over 50%. All this are facts to support your point. In Exodus when it says that Gd settled the Israelites in their tents He was doing more than prescribing a camping arrangement. He set the extended family as the basic governing structure of their society. As we were discussing the various woes of economic systems and governments and the failure of modern society to provide justice for the poor, we have to bear in mind that God’s plan for governance was not a Kingdom but a family guided society. Families were tasked with caring for their own and the worst thing one could do was let cousin Lazarus starve at the gate. It is also why the Lord provided form His Mother’s care by placing John in charge of caring for her. (It is also scriptural evidence of why Jesus did not have blood brothers. They would have been responsible for Mary and He would have violated Leverite Law by His actions, and thereby sinned, if He really had blood brothers.) The ills of our society are routed in the break up of the extended family and our refusal as family to care for our own.

  75. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    The loss of community whether as extended blood family or the willingness and ability to share time, bread and burdens with members of one’s parish family is a dilemma.

  76. Nicholas Stephen Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Stephen Griswold

    Yes, loss of any community is devastating. In previous times whole parishes were both family and parish at the same time. Not only were they brothers and sisters in Christ, they often were cousins etc. With the events of the 19th and 20 Century we lost that bond. Nowadays we have to try hard to form tight bonds within our parishes to fill that void.

  77. Thomas Avatar

    The problem, in a certain sense, isn’t classic capitalism, here defined as “the exchange of goods and services for an agreed upon price.” This paradigm prevailed for large swathes of human history. But American capitalism has strayed far afield. (I’m begging all of you to read Max Weber’s Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism for an analysis of how modern capitalism differs from classic capitalism)

    Modern venture capitalism-stock market shennanigans is economic witchcraft. Mergers and acquisitions have led to a concentration of power in a horrifyingly small number of businesses, who now wield influence on the scale of nations.

    At the end of the day the most economically viable company wins, but it’s worth asking: Who is more viable between two companies, the ethical one or the unethical one?

  78. Thomas Avatar

    And I’m not espousing communism, since that seems a necessary qualification.

  79. Maria W Avatar
    Maria W

    Reba’s comment Dec.1.2017
    Loved your comment and the last paragraph because you speak the truth. It is all true.
    I find it hard to divorce my religion from what I see going on around me. At the same time I can not make church a world of value, pick and choose an answer from a 2000 year old biblical narrative, when I live 2000 years later in a world with progressive developments, squeeze my mind into reverse to find answers to current problems in just one Book. I do believe the bible needs to survive for when man has lost his orientation in the world of chaos. After all Jesus did say, I have come for the lost house of Israel and also some that are not of his house, (paraphrased) but mainly for the lost. I value the book and hold it in high esteem, but consider it a mistake to ignore the facts and the truth of our time and not live in it consciously. Not to do so results in my experience in collisions. Drive on a freeway and not pay attention to the present and your surrounding and respond accordingly = you crash and come a way with injuries = missed the mark.
    I am very grateful to everyone here, your comments, insights, your presence to take the time to think and respond truthfully to the best of your knowledge, and to Fr. Freeman for the essays and food for thought, It means a lot to me as ” the stranger” …..a feast at the table and much needed. It is a fine balancing or tuning to learn to live between the past and future, and make the present happen and livable. So much for the poor in spirit and “Thank You” God is good and may his love reign for ever.

  80. Dick Sherman Avatar
    Dick Sherman

    Fr. Freeman, this blog has caused me to think about things like I have never before. I was raised in a Christian home and came to know the Lord through Youth For Christ. I worked in YFC as a young man, was ordained in a Baptist Church, and worked as a youth worker in Churches and eventually pastored a small Evangelical congreation. I was disenchanted with what I saw in Evangelicalism and when exposed to Orthodoxy, was taken aback with the worship. My wife began attending a Greek Orthodoxy Church and loved it, though part of the service was in Greek. Eventually I was led by my future God-Father to attend an Orthodoxy Church founded by a group of former Evangelicals – and I was hooked by the Liturgy and the Worship. I have not thought through the financial systems of our Country, but have had a care for the poor. This blog post has opened up another large world for me to consider. Thank you for that. And thanks to all your commentators.

  81. Sean Richards Avatar
    Sean Richards

    Father, it seems to me that Smith is misunderstood. Back in his day he wrote exactly against the privilege of the privileged and against the tilted playing field of the day. The system that we have in place today is far more similar to what Smith wrote against, than to what he was in favor of and it’s sort of unfair to blame the guy if we’re being honest. The mercantilism the Smith wrote against looked like dystopia from anti-capitalist stories: chartered mega-corporations who held territorial sovereignty and had private armies, government outsourced taxation to private contractors (and these in turn collected not only taxes, but also tended to carry away the peoples’ cattle, clothes, and tools in order to cover the costs of enforcement), governments sold monopoly grants to the highest bidder, there were maximum wage laws (!), slavery and regional mobility restrictions in place (so as to maximally depress the wages), huge percentage of national populations were reduced to beggary or banditry, etc. etc.

  82. Juliania Avatar

    Maria, I went back to Reba’s comment , since it spoke to you, and it may be that you both cconsider that the lot of mankind in general has improved, has progressed so markedly that the government we have to concern ourselves with and all the scientific advances have made the world a far different place with different people in it that have different ideas, goals, lives than the tribal entities of 2000 years ago.

    This simply isn’t true. Or, I should say, it is true only on the most superficial level. When Father Freeman mentioned that he preferred the word ‘debt’ ‘ to ‘trespasses’ I had to go look at the text in Matthew and in Luke, to see what the words say, because I love ‘trespasses’ myself, mostly because it fits better when sung. Well, I won’t elaborate, but the answer is there in the very words each uses – they are different, but they answer

    in a living, present way. And I find that very wonderful. I could ask Matthew, and I could ask Luke something important to me here and now, and they could answer, more clearly than I am stumbling to answer you now.
    The Theotokos sang, “All generations shall call me blessed.” She was right;
    we do.

  83. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Your points about Smith are well-taken. My own point concerning Smith (where I suppose I have used him as a bit of a cipher) is of a rational self-interest approach to an economy. It was, doubtless, his own attempt, using the tools of the Scotish Enlightenment, to suggest a better way forward.

    The simplistic ideas associated with free-markets and rational self-interest (though largely un-used) are frequently used to justify present practices, as though they described long-proved principles that we dare not ignore. The individualism associated with it, and the refusal to reasonably address the structural problems (the playing field), particularly using the irrational plea that any examination of structural causes in an economy are Marxist, or worse, is a blindness in American culture. It is coming, I sometimes think, to be a problem of “crying wolf,” in which people grow tired of this trope and become willing to look elsewhere. That, I suggest, is a great way to invite real Marxism, which would be a mistake.

  84. Byron Avatar

    I find it hard to divorce my religion from what I see going on around me. At the same time I can not make church a world of value, pick and choose an answer from a 2000 year old biblical narrative, when I live 2000 years later in a world with progressive developments, squeeze my mind into reverse to find answers to current problems in just one Book. I do believe the bible needs to survive for when man has lost his orientation in the world of chaos.

    This is the value, and the truth, of Tradition (which includes the scriptures): it provides the foundation for properly understanding everything around us, in any time. There is nothing especially “progressive” in the world today–people are very much the same as they have always been. Additional technology and/or layers of social protection from the reality of the world do not change that. I recall one monk or saint (I forget which) who said that, if all the scriptures were destroyed, we would simply write new ones. The danger, I believe, is in thinking that any society, current or otherwise, may stand in judgement over the Tradition and the Church. This is, unfortunately, how many people think in these days (I believe it is usually referred to as “chronological snobbery”).

  85. Agata Avatar

    Thank you for your comment. It reminds me of something I read or heard once:
    that the Scriptures are not “a description of humans’ version of God”, but rather that they are a description of “God’s version of humanity”… To think we can improve on the teachings and Tradition of the Church which was handed down to the Saints is indeed snobbery…

  86. Paula Avatar

    Just a few thoughts, if you will…
    I too can’t help but compare our culture with those of the past. I tend to think we are comparably “worse”. Yet when I read, for example, the lives of the Saints I am struck by the horrendous public tortures as well as the invention of these methods of torture. I wonder at the darkness of the soul and how in the world people stood by and watched…pagan or not, it is beyond my comprehension. Not only then, but before and after, crimes of humanity have been committed. The only difference now is we cover them up a bit better. And truth be know, who am I to say that I wouldn’t have been one to cover my eyes, or worse, to justify the torture. My point is similar to Juliania’s….humanity has not changed one bit…we only fool ourselves if we think otherwise. That death is the wage of sin, that we are our brothers keeper, that I am responsible for the impact of each and every deed should be more sobering to me than it in truth is. And that is why I say the Bible, no..even more..the Church, is just as meaningful and needful now as it was in the beginning…and will always be until its consummation. Progressive development in science, technology, government and the like is one thing…transformation of the soul, another.
    You are mad at flaunting of riches in America? this, at the expense of trampling over the poor, the helpless, the disadvantaged? So am I. You’re mad at the hypocrisy in the Church? Me too…but expect nothing more from the corruption of sin. Are we any more helpless than the “poor and needy”? No, of coarse not. Repentance takes on many forms and is not a smooth ride.
    Mercy, Maria, I can almost feel your pain, your frustration and anger. I would take it away if I could! But then I know by experience, unrelenting pain can not be healed by well meaning friends, although their concern was a balm. Rather, it took a long time to finally get over the rage, and by Gods grace still healing. So I can only second Father’s words to you, that God preserve you and keep you.
    And by the way Maria, you say you’re the stranger? Well, welcome dear friend….we too are strangers in this world!

  87. learningtobestill2016 Avatar

    Thank you, Father.

  88. Alan Avatar

    “I get feedback from a number of sources. So, just to set the record straight: I am not a communist, a Marxist, a Liberal, or a Social Justice Warrior. Indeed, this article is not about politics. The fact that people immediately leap to political thoughts is simply symptomatic to being captive to modernity itself which believes that solutions are found in the political arena. They are not.

    This is an article about the poor, how they are view in the Scriptures, and how we should view them as believing Christians. The playing field is tilted. Yes, some of us are privileged. If you were born to wealth, the playing field is tilted for you. If you are born in poverty, the playing field is tilted. The Scriptures understand and note these realities. Lazarus is at our gates – always.

    But if thinking or reading about these things mashes your political buttons (which also means “anger” buttons” in our present age), then the problem is your bondage to the modern project. Let it go. Until we get free of this world, and have our minds conformed to the Kingdom of God, we will live a life of blindness.”

    Outstanding Father!! Thank you.

  89. Dino Avatar

    It seems that secular utilitarianism has infiltrated the way we tend to think, regrettably dominating the framework of many a conversation. It is perpetuated by the ridiculous exaltation of the various [phony-imitation-kingdom-of-heaven] political systems such as Communism and Capitalism. Come to think of it, modern globalization is somewhat ‘shaped’ by the contribution of the these two diametrically opposed political systems. Yet Communism and Capitalism, though ‘opposites’, are actually in complete agreement in one crucial matter; the extinction of Man as a person. It is why, despite their contrasting starting points, both produce the same result: a hellish, secular, counterfeit ‘paradise’: globalization.

  90. Maria W Avatar
    Maria W

    To Paula’s comment Dec.4th,
    Thank you for taking the time to write your thoughts and I appreciate it. I noticed your intend to want to relate and thank you for it. Never the less I just can’t help coming away not sharing all or some of the interpretations in the application, or understanding of what you may know, or believe about God. For me God is not something passive in us, but rather dynamic, he creates resonance with other living human beings in what is true. I don’t understand how there is so little dynamic resonance or power among Christians creating some kind of solidarity. We rather chose (ego) to divide and fight over dogma or icons or some other word meanings, Mary, or like the last supper….do this in remembrance of me; a saying before he died, and then we cut the other out or off in the form …..we are right they are wrong, we are “THE” Church, you are not one of us etc. I could never become more Christian by accepting every dogma in Orthodoxy ; Everyone communicates what he/she believes and understands as, or to be true, and by living it you will know if it is. We can know and say a lot, and it may not be true. Christians are weak where ever I go , individualized, unsupported and not in unity, over systems of Church governments, Church dogma’s run by traditions or what ever. I thought the spirit/the water of life should always rule over people or Church- Governments. But tradition, dogmas and a lot of isolation is/ are ruling over God’s creation in the Churches. Not the Spirit. We may manage to go along, drown out the life we’ve been given, but like in any marriage, it will fail. What will remain is a death sentence. My pain extends from knowing the good being totally destroyed in an American Culture where there is no cultural entity that provides the bonds to sustain our humanity. It took thousands, millions and billions of ancestral years of life and death, to form me/us into individuals, a structural and coercive expression of who we are as a human being, a life form created in the image of our creator. I have come to the conclusion that all the struggles our ancestors made to survive to the present, and to make life a little better in and for every Generation, as it has been done for thousands of years consciously, ( thru laws etc.), is being systematically negated not only by your Orthodox Church, (as I understand it per comments here, a Christian is not responsibility or needs to repair this broken world by our God given hands), but also the general culture that is bend on our destruction by changing the moral fiber and state of affairs on many issues. I remember my own era and years here. You say something you get fired, or a trouble maker, lies are welcomed , lets profit after the pleasure principle, squander, bizarre working conditions, winners vs. looser, yes someone said to big to fail…A mind set unimaginable and incomprehensible for my pea brain in need always for clear living. Get a handle on this, it’s dizzying and insane, or I am from another planet. God gave us this earth to manage it …. not to destroy it….and in that lays an obligation and a responsibility in all of us to some degree. I guess the Churches has left it to the liberals. The apathy, failure and the death in the Churches is staggering and makes me think of the 7 churches in Revelation. My prayer is that God shakes one of them up to wake up, which ever is here. So much for my pain.

  91. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Maria W.,
    Forgive me, but I suggest you need to rethink many things. Since nothing you see around you, viz. Christians, seems to be as you imagine it should be, perhaps the problem is in how you imagine it. It would also seem that your imagination of a better, or even perfect Church, holds you aloof. As such, you prefer private imagining to the messy reality that is the Church.

    I think God has known and even predicted the messiness of the Church from the beginning. Jesus gave instructions, for example, in how to mutually submit rather than lord it over one another, because He knew we would want to lord it over one another. The letters of St. Paul were written to places with problems. That was in the 1st century, the first generation, which is to say, it has never(!) been otherwise.

    The current mess of denominationalism is what it is, and can be easily explained in its origins and its continuation. Orthodoxy is what it is, not as a denomination among the others, but as the continuation of the same Church Christ founded at the beginning, with the fullness He gave it.

    Orthodoxy never claims perfection for itself. Some people foolishly argue as though we were superior. It’s a stupid argument and beside the point. Orthodoxy has the same kind of sinners as everything else. It is not what it is because it’s better – it is what it is because it is what it is – it is the Church as God gave it to us.

    It also produces saints, by God’s grace. The discussions here on the blog are not meant to suggest superiority. They are meant to describe Orthodoxy in its fullness to readers who want to know more (whether Orthodox or otherwise). They are meant to examine the world we live in and the challenges we face with an eye to changing ourselves – we are not in charge of changing the world.

    As such, Orthodox Christians have thrown themselves into the shame of being visibly accountable to one another and visibly seen by the world. When we fail, everyone can see it and mock us. But the Church is the life which Christ has given us.

    I recall from some of your descriptions that your life has had many difficulties. The Church’s life is filled with difficulties as well and cannot be otherwise in this world. May God give us all grace.

  92. Byron Avatar

    But tradition, dogmas and a lot of isolation is/ are ruling over God’s creation in the Churches. Not the Spirit.

    The Tradition of the Church is the movement of the Holy Spirit; it moves to draw us closer to God. This is how the Church “produces Saints”. It is the Spirit that draws us.

    as I understand it per comments here, a Christian is not responsibility or needs to repair this broken world by our God given hands…. God gave us this earth to manage it …. not to destroy it….and in that lays an obligation and a responsibility in all of us to some degree….

    We are responsible, but not for the salvation of the world. One of the fathers said that “God gave the salvation of the world to Jesus. We should work on our own hearts and maybe help 5 or 6 others along as we go” (forgive me for a bad paraphrase). We pray, we love our neighbor, we give alms, we cover the orphan and the widow. We do what we can for those in front of us. But we also realize that we will not “manage the world” or save it. That is what Christ has done. That is Pascha. We should take joy in that and give joy to those around us as well. It is communicable, after all.

    My priest gave an excellent example of this this past Sunday. When speaking of the rich young man and giving alms, he said we give alms because God has commanded us to do so. Hence we know it is good, but why? He went on to say that when we give we need to realize that the person to whom we give is providing God’s grace to us, not the other way around. They are relieving us of our avarice, our perceived need for riches. And we should be thankful for their gift to us, not thinking that we have done anything for them (their life likely won’t change due to our “donation”). So we work on our own heart and love our neighbor as best we can. And God saves the world.

  93. Karen Avatar

    Dino, just so! Well said. I’m looking forward to the Day when the kingdoms of this world will have become in fullness the Kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ!

  94. Alyoshak Avatar

    Creation is eagerly awaiting its freedom from slavery to corruption, according to the apostle Paul, a liberation which is directly dependent on the redemption and freedom of the children of God. It is only in the light of this relationship that Christians can participate in the redemption of all that is broken.

  95. Paula Avatar

    All I can say is heed the words of Father Stephen…he knows what he’s talking about. He is able to come to the point and speak to the root of the problem. Not that the comments are helpful…no, they are all very helpful. But Father addresses a specific issue.
    I don’t know Maria….you find yourself here at this blog site…what could be the reason(s) behind this? If this is the hand of God, do you think He would lead you to conclude that His work here on earth has failed?
    One more question…and I have to bring this up again because it left an imprint on my mind…you said that you are the stranger here. Who told you such a thing? Who declared you the stranger and by what qualifications?

    Maria, I pray God grant you His peace. Take care please.

  96. Agata Avatar

    I too am very sorry for the suffering you experienced in your life. May the Lord bring you consolation and heal you, He is the only One who can do that, but you have to ask first….

    I love what Father Stephen wrote in response to your words.

    You are in my prayers.

    Here is another beautiful perspective on this theme, maybe it will help you to hear in a little different words.

  97. Byron Avatar

    Creation is eagerly awaiting its freedom from slavery to corruption, according to the apostle Paul, a liberation which is directly dependent on the redemption and freedom of the children of God. It is only in the light of this relationship that Christians can participate in the redemption of all that is broken.

    Wonderfully said, Alyoshak!

  98. Victoria Avatar


    Your comment “Yet Communism and Capitalism, though ‘opposites’, are actually in complete agreement in one crucial matter; the extinction of Man as a person. ” brought to recollection a conversation I had many years ago with a friend who is a lawyer. Much of the conversation was about corporations have legal status as persons. And I say that not undrrstanding the legal intricacies of it but considering how that and consumerism in our country where everything is based on our economy and consumption all play into the erosion of man.

  99. learningtobestill2016 Avatar

    In America, corporations are legal persons. Almost all of them have been legally granted a perpetual existence. All for profit corporations exist for only one reason: to make money for their owners.

    In other words, they are immortal creatures who are motivated by greed and greed alone.

    That is why a good friend of mine, a Christian attorney, insists that they are, quite literally, demons.

    And they control almost all of the wealth in the world.

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